This summer in Roanoke, I dropped money at a boutique called La De Da, so unlikely a place I’d ever shop that my husband called to see if someone was charging on our credit card. I bought unlikely clothes, too, an olive-green knit slip with tulle ruffles I wore as a dress. An ivory eyelet jacket with a net peplum I wore over a lacy half slip.
Yes, this was the summer I broke bad, clothes-wise.
As a tomboy kid, I didn’t give a flit what I wore. Here I am at ten in plain pants and a top that “didn’t hang right in the neck,” as my mother said. I was comfortable and since nobody ever noticed me anyway, I could eavesdrop and pilfer through dresser drawers.
But girls grow up and become interested in clothes. The thick August issue of Seventeen was my bible (“nothing but advertisements,” my mother scoffed). I pored over those ads, longing for the just-right loafer with the just-right dress. When I fretted over my looks, my mother said, “You can’t make a peach out of a pear.”
Despite my Seventeen dreams, most of my clothes were handmade or hand-me-downs and I stood out in the wrong way. Mean girls poked fun at my outfits (I got back at them in my books). When I began publishing, I had to face the public. I didn’t want people to know I was uneducated and provincial so I created a persona with clothes.
In the 80s and 90s I ripped through a Gunne Sax phase and a Laura Ashley phase and a prissy Miss Talbots phase. Those clothes allowed me to walk into luncheons and conferences and convention halls and talk to people. But inside those expensive costumes, I was still a pear, shy, nervous, inadequate.
And then a wonderful thing happened. I went from middle-aged to—well, something just past middle-age. I became invisible. I could stop trying to be a peach.
I quit worrying about how I looked. That didn’t mean I attended conferences in a bathrobe with one sleeve ripped off and a pair of hip-waders. But I didn’t care if I wasn’t on the best-dressed list any more, either. I let my real self loose—irreverent, a little on the redneck side, and mighty comfy.
Most important, I discovered that being invisible gained me entrance into places where I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I heard things, saw things that I wouldn’t have if I was trussed up like a Christmas turkey. It’s the same reason I carry an ordinary notebook to those places. We see people tapping away on laptops everywhere. But not where I go.
When Julie Otsuka was working on her book, The Buddha in the Attic, she stayed “invisible and unwatched” in her day to day life. “I feel invisible and unwatched anyway. It’s my preferred stance in the world: I can see you, but you can’t see me.”
So when I came home from Hollins, I hung up the tulled-edged spaghetti-strap slip dress, folded the silky eyelet lace half-slip skirt. (I’ll wear them again next summer.)
I put on my protective camouflage, a brown jersey skirt or denim shorts with a tee-shirt, pick up my notebook and pen, and slip into my regular pear self where I blend in perfectly with my surroundings.
We were up at 6:00 nearly every morning and walking by 6:30. The Hollins Summer Walking Team–Claudia Mills, Elizabeth Dulemba, and me. We talked, logged in countless miles, and never failed to appreciate the scenery spread before us.
I’d come to Hollins this summer not only to teach and talk but to find the words again. Words had left me two and a half years ago, though I’d become adept at faking it.
Hollins is the perfect environment. For six weeks I’m free from the hunting and gathering of food and waste management (my definition of running a house). I’d get up, make my little bed, walk, wash my one bowl and glass and spoon and would have the rest of the day to teach and talk and read . . . and write.
Last summer I sat in my Hollins apartment and stared at my laptop screen. One afternoon I became completely frozen, literally unable to get up for hours. I called my husband in a panic. He told me to shut down my computer and keep it off except for business emails. That’s what I did the rest of the term. And came home with nothing.
This summer it seemed like more of the same. A journal entry from early in the term:
I work all day but don’t really write. My journals sit on tables and chests, pen on top, but I hardly ever open them. I need to write an essay for the photo website and I can’t think of how to write about home. My last blog post was someone else’s words.
Last night as I tried to sleep, I saw those kids in my head again. Small, dark, and distant. They run around playing on a bowl-shaped surface. Maybe a hill. I can’t hear them and they won’t come to me.
Mornings The Team would walk and talk. We saw yellow-crowned night herons standing like upended croquet mallets in Carvin Creek. Swallows capered across the sky, showing off, and muskrats foraged in the grass along the creek bank.
I also walked the campus loop alone to break loose blocked thoughts. Soon I stopped thinking and simply looked around me.
Deer were plentiful this year. Herds grazed in the middle of the day, watchful but unafraid. I followed the roller-coaster flights of bluebirds until I memorized their songs.
Then there were the skunks. Passels of them roamed the grounds at dusk. I was standing on the porch of the old parsonage early one evening when this posse stampeded straight for me. I jumped off the porch and snapped a quick, blurry photo. Did you know a group of skunks is called a surfeit? Even one skunk seems too many when you’re wearing flip-flops and running down a very long hill.
This was the summer I fell in love with muskrats. I saw them swimming in Carvin Creek. I saw them feeding by the drainage ditches. I stepped in their bolt holes dug a few feet from the creek’s edge.
Muskrats are hinky creatures, skittering off the instant they spy humans, diving down the bolt hole and emerging beneath the bank. Their vertically flattened tails act as rudders, enabling quick getaways. The muskrats were a constant, reassuring presence. They went about their business without any fuss.
In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit says: What is the message that wild animals bring, the message that seems to say everything and nothing? What is this message that is wordless, that is nothing more or less than the animals themselves–that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?
I turned off my laptop and carried a notebook. I didn’t open the notebook much, but carrying it made me feel better. I listened to the speakers our program sponsors every summer—writers, illustrators, scholars—and learned they went about their business without any fuss, too.
The best writing, Solnit says, appears like those animals, sudden, self-possessed, telling everything and nothing, words approaching wordlessness.
Two days before the end of the term, one of those dark, distant kids I kept seeing in my head turned to face me. She spoke. And I reached for my notebook.